Monday, January 23, 2017

Let’s Take A Collective Spiritual Breath Filled With Faith and Consider What It Means to Be a Person of Observance

Last night I listened to an interview with Omar Saif Ghobash about his book Letters to a Young Muslim regarding his perspective on what it means to be a good, observant Muslim and what our children and youth have to understand about that goal in a time and context in which there are many messages that would not extol the value of moderation and in fact would convey the notion hat the only way to be a good Muslim is to be the strictest Muslim possible, whatever that may mean. Does this include obliterating the notion that everyone else who is not a Muslim does not have a right to believe and live as Muslims do? No, clearly no, says Ghobash, who teaches that being Muslim is not antithetical to being human but reinforces and is reinforced by it.

In a review written on this book by Aymann Ismail, the following is stated by a self-identified devout Muslim:

…whenever news breaks of a terrorist assault on a church in the name of Islam. I understand how alien and unfriendly Christianity can feel to young Muslims. When an entire generation of Muslims is getting inundated with anti-Muslim imagery while being taught only rules and not given the tools to actually study and interpret the Quran, it leaves many young Muslims vulnerable to terrorist groups with evil political goals. This is an uncomfortable truth mostly deflected within Muslim communities. It’s easy to say that monsters don’t and shouldn’t represent us, but what are Muslims doing to protect their children from radicalism?

Simultaneously, within the last few days I read a piece by a wonderful Rabbi whom I have come to know in my work around inclusion of all members of the Orthodox community and for whom I have come to have great respect. Rabbi Haim Ovadia, recently wrote in his own daily blog that his concern with increasing degrees of strict levels of adherence to Jewish law that go beyond the parameters of law as it has come down to us, may regrettably lead us to the point where we have less and less Jews who are observing more and more laws. In my own daily learning of Gemara, I have recently come across the following reference from the Yerushalmi (9:1) “’Is what the Torah prohibits not enough for you, that you seek to amend new prohibitions for yourself?” We learn clearly in Devarim/Deuteronomy 12:32, “Do not add to and do not subtract from the words of the Torah.” Further we are taught that the virtuous and humble Jews would avoid making such additional restrictions, while those with ulterior motives were more quick to do so. Clearly, there is an important message in these individual sources and in their interfacing in the past few days.

At the same time, it is hard to look at the news these days without being confronted by the Christian Right (Alt-Right?) and their attempts to once again exclude so many people in this country – from rights to their bodies, from safety in the public square and from basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (fulfillment?) that are the hallmark guarantees of what it means to be an American.

There were millions of people, those very Americans, who have been protesting and have been gathering peacefully (in mostly all cases) to remind all of us that to be a person observant of any faith and ideology DOES NOT mean exclusion of others, vilification of those with whom we do not agree, or increasing the level of strict adherence to whatever we hold as true because …. well, because we decide to or listen to those who decide to.

I have always been a firm believer in the texts that define who we are, whether those foundational texts that are recorded for our benefit are the Tanach (Jewish source) the Holy Bible – Old and New Testament (Christian source) or the Koran (Muslim source). These texts remind us to do as the Prophet Micah instructs and “walk humbly with our G-d” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” [VaYikra/Leviticus] and to “not oppress” ANY vulnerable party, an instruction repeated 36 times in the Five Books of the Torah. That is all about who we are as OBSERVANT MEMBERS of our chosen communities. So, as we settle in to this next chapter of American history and the fears many of us share about our world, let those millions of people who have stood up for these fundamental truths now take action. We are taught that “it is not for you to do all of the work that needs to be done, but do not stop from doing your part.” [Avot 2:21] Only then will we all show that spiritual motivation and the value of faith truly are behind who we are as people of observance, regardless of which path that observance takes.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A New Year, A New Set of Words and Utterances

In my present daily learning of Gemara, (Talmud) I am going through Masechet Ketubot, which is so much about contracts and the words that we speak that turn into shared understandings with implications. There is a rather long and complex discussion about when spoken words are enough to seal a contractual understanding and when it needs to be confirmed by the written word, and finally, when signatories to the written words are needed. At various points in the discussion, the phrase “If X is said in such and such a case, it is as if nothing was said” appears, indicating that the spoken word may or may not be enough to seal an understanding. Intention counts and there is the usual mix of so many different elements in these discourses that show the importance of the honor of one’s word and the potential harm that ill placed words can do.

In the meantime, I also just completed reading a wonderful book entitled I Am The Grand Canyon by Stephen Hirst about the Havusupai Native Americans and their very long battles to hold onto and then reclaim ancestral lands, the empty promises made to them and the loss of faith in humanity that plagued them on so many levels. These people of the Grand Canyon, for whom the earth was their grandmother and grandfather were and are a simple people of the land whose relationship to all of the earth is taken very seriously and that relationship and its centrality to their identity was lost in a series of contracts and written agreements that ended up being “as if nothing was said” regardless of who the signatories were and the sophistication and precision of the language.

One could be tempted to make the point that this is a nod to contract lawyers who make sure that words are ever so carefully crafted so as to protect the rights and responsibilities of signatories whose names are properly affixed and witnessed. But alas, I had one of those some years ago that was as legally binding as the written word could be not to mention the verbal statement that “I had nothing to worry about” and yet the other signatory never paid me a hefty amount owed for professional services rendered, almost $90,000 to be specific. Clearly that hurt in a significant way. These words were treated by that party “as if nothing was said.” So much for contract law!

So intention is everything. Whether spoken or written, the question is do we intend to honor our word? And how important is it to do so? We constantly read in our Torah “G-d spoke to Moshe saying, Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them…” And then we read both this instruction and then the relaying of the message. Our commentators explain that this is important to insure that the words transmitted are indeed the words intended. This is also the case with the generational stories of the Havasupai. We are taught often that our words DO MATTER! In many communities, and I have written about this before, there are campaigns to watch our language and insure that we do not hurt others by those words – that is to be honorable in how we speak and to be sure that our words count and ARE NOT AS IF NOTHING WAS SAID.

I have always loved Meryl Streep. I think she is regal, immensely talented and a true mensch! Last night (as I watched the Golden Globe Awards) I was crying right along with her as she asked us to think about our words and be careful in using them. There is no need to go into the highly publicized reaction to her heartfelt speech and sincere words. I agree with the commentator who sometime ago asked both candidates for the Presidency if they thought they were good role models. We have seen many instances where our children do look up to people in important positions and want to emulate them. What type of imitation can we even hope to illustrate when the one who holds the highest position in our country and in the free world does not apologize for hurting people, is vigilant about attacking anyone who disagrees with him by demeaning them (or trying to anyway), and continues to not think before he speaks or tweets. This is NOT about politics; it is about basic decency minimally and accountability and the persona we present at most.

This week we complete the book of Bereshit/Genesis. The question has been posed as to why Yoseph is not properly honored as the fourth Patriarch, having held such an important place in our history. The answer suggested by many including Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is that for all of his leadership success, he missed the mark in intentionality of his actions and his words. Riskin says as follows: “.I believe it was the great Prof. Nechama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, who pointed out that Moses is the great fighter against injustice, whether it is perpetrated by Egyptian (gentile) against Hebrew (Exodus 2:11), by Hebrew against Hebrew, or by Midianite (gentile) against Midianite (gentile).” Riskin explains Yoseph did not get this – that we have to act in honorable and thoughtful ways in all that we do. That definitely includes our speech.

So as we embark on our lives in this new secular year of 2017 and for those of us who have already slipped in our “new Year Resolutions” let us commit to being resolute in this way: We will watch and take care with our words and insure that they heal and build and not hurt and destroy. Let our words show how we can be wonderful role models.